Philadelphia Union owner Jay Sugarman knew he was getting a winner when he hired sporting director Ernst Tanner.
However, he didn’t expect the success Tanner had at previous jobs to translate right away in his first full Major League Soccer season.
The 2019 season, which Sugarman told Pro Soccer USA was supposed to be more transitional to Tanner’s system, exceeded expectations and ended with the Union earning their first-ever playoff victory.
“This was meant to be more of a transition year,” Sugarman said. “We have not fully transitioned to that style of play, but it’s a real credit to (manager Jim Curtin) and the players for what they were able to accomplish this year with a new sporting director, new players, new style of play. I couldn’t be more proud of them for what they were able to do. I expect it to get even better now.”
Tanner hit on a few key signings ahead of the 2019 season, including left back Kai Wagner, forward Kacper Przybylko and midfielder Jamiro Monteiro, to help take the Union to the next level.
“I knew we were hiring a winner when we hired Ernst,” Sugarman said. “He spent his whole career trying to figure out how to be the best. Germany has been a great training ground, so has Austria.
“Ultimately, he has a very clear vision of how you can succeed and the style of play that he wants to play requires a lot from players mentally, physically, but he’s very clear and can point to places it has succeeded and why will it succeed for the Union.
“That clarity of vision, that history and experience where he’s seen it succeed and he knows what the elements of that success were, and to be able to bring those and just be very consistent in his thought process, I thought would succeed here.”
The one transfer that did not pan out was Marco Fabian, who was brought in on a club-record deal and had his option declined following the 2019 campaign.
“With respect to Marco, I think we’re all disappointed because we know the quality he has,” Sugarman said. “The red card (in March), the injuries and he never really got into his full flow. But we know he’s a top-caliber player and wished he would have had a full season to put it all together for us. I think he helped show the ambition the club has and certainly we continue to believe that we are dangerous as a team because we play as a team.”
Fabian’s failure to make an impact over the entire MLS campaign will not hamper the club from bringing in another player of his caliber, Sugarman said, but the Union are not going to drift from their overall acquisition model either.
“It’s not about any one individual,’ Sugarman said. “If you ask me if I’d rather have five $1 million players or one $5 million player, we’re more team-focused and I’d like to have that quality spread all over the field. We like depth all over the field. Ernst’s style of play requires that. It’s pretty demanding mentally and physically. If you put all your eggs in one basket, it doesn’t really fit with his style. We’ll be consistent in that thought process.
“We’ll try to build depth and quality across the field,” Sugarman said. “It’s never easy to do it in one fell swoop. I think this year Jim did an incredible job pulling together all the pieces, some young, some experienced, some familiar with the team, some unfamiliar and that process will have to continue, but each year I think we’ll get better and better and cleaner in terms of our ability to execute the style of play that is gaining a lot of success across the world. We want to be the best at it in MLS and really build an identity that makes the Union a dangerous team because we play as a team.”
Sugarman has higher expectations for what Tanner can achieve in roster building for 2020 and how high the Union can climb in the Eastern Conference.
The owner noted Tanner’s footprint on the squad came at the right time after Earnie Stewart left for the U.S. men’s national team general manager position.
The early results have Sugarman intrigued for the future, and he is ready to see what the next piece of the sporting director’s regime brings.
“I sometimes say Earnie professionalized the Union and now Ernst is weaponizing it,” Sugarman said.
“We needed a fundamental change five years ago. The fans knew it. I knew it. We decided the first step was to bring in somebody who knew what a first-class soccer operation looked like, give them complete control over the technical side and Earnie was great at that.
“When (Stewart) went off to the USMNT, we decided we could take the next step. We built a lot of the foundational elements. We built the fields. We built the training complex. We built the front office and technical staff offices. We built the academy. We had a school. We just needed a leader who had successfully in a style of play that we thought could translate to MLS very successfully.
“Richie (Graham)’s relationship with Ernst goes back almost 7-8 years so he had been on our radar and we had watched his success at Hoffenheim and Salzburg,” he said of the Union’s co-owner. “We knew that system would be powerful and the qualities, the expertise, the commitment he would bring would really take us to the next level and start to weaponize these foundational elements.
“It’s all part of the same journey. Earnie happened to be there very early on when we needed one particular piece of that puzzle emphasized,” Sugarman said. “Now Ernst has come in when we needed perhaps a different piece.”